Cellara helping stem cell scientists move beyond hand-written records

Important cell culture information sits nestled in handwritten lab notebooks of stem cell scientists all over the world. That means it’s often inaccessible for sharing with other labs.

“Cell culture work itself is entirely done by manual handwritten methods based on lab method. We literally never found exception to that after talking to hundreds of people around the world,” said Scott Fulton, chief technical officer of Cellara, a Madison startup which was profiled as part of an ongoing series written by UW-Madison students. “All the people doing the research are doing it all by hand. Here’s a big problem, we can solve that problem.”

Cellara wants to reconnect that “missing link” with CultureTrax.

CultureTrax is a software information platform for laboratories that are using stem cell technology. It enables them to plan, execute and document the work they’re doing in the lab around culturing stem cells and other kinds of cells.

“It allows them to share that work without other collaborates with that lab or on the other side of the world,” Fulton said. “It opens up a whole part of the data they’re generating that wasn’t accessible before for discovery.”

According to Fulton, stem cell scientists’ experiments can take anywhere from one to six months to perform, and they use all this “incredible high tech that generates hundreds of gigabytes per experiment.”

CultureTrax’s mission is clear for Cellara.

“We want it to be the global standard that is expected to be used in all laboratories using this technology because the benefit of it as a real network effect thing,” Fulton said. “We want to make collaboration and data discovery better for the whole field, make it the global standard, and do whatever it takes to get there.”

One of the biggest obstacles they’ve run into is the sheer complexity of the problem, and several other people have attempted to create something similar over the years.

“There’s a reason no one has done this before. It’s really hard.” Fulton said. “Literally every scientist is doing something different. This (must) be extremely flexible. You have to be making all the connections between all the different data they’re collecting.”

Fulton says using software as a tool, stem cell scientists, and life sciences tools is a mix that makes Madison a prime spot for CultureTrax to come together.

“Madison is strongest at a global level, really a world center for all three. I don’t see how this product could emerge anywhere except from Madison, Wisconsin,” Fulton said. “It’s a life science tech hub; it’s not like Silicon Valley, but it really is a life science tech hub.”

While CultureTrax might seem like better record keeping and sharing software, it holds global promise with the emerging wave of cell-based therapies.

“When (James) Thomson made the discoveries 20 years ago it was just an idea. And now it’s a reality,” Fulton said. “We’re solving this almost bizarre problem that really makes this emerging science that’s going to have a dramatic impact on human health in the coming decades much more effect.”

Fulton explains that stem cell technology has morphed into taking cells from people as a blood sample or tissue sample – “taking adult cells and effectively turning them into embryonic stem cells.”

Those differentiated cells can be turned into new therapies or human cell-based disease models for drug testing. CultureTrax is planning to help.

“We’re going to help those cures go from laboratory to the market much faster. We’re enabling this science much more effective,” Fulton said. “It really has the opportunity to change the world in a small but significant way.”

Cellara presented to potential investors in the Tech Council Investors Networks’ track at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium.

–By Josie Russo
Russo is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.